USDA makes commitment to big game conservation in the West |

USDA makes commitment to big game conservation in the West

The Agriculture Department will support voluntary conservation of private working lands and migratory big game populations in a pilot project in Wyoming, Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie announced today in Cody, Wyo., at the University of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park 150th Anniversary Symposium.

The pilot will take a systems approach to voluntary conservation and draw on several USDA programs, including the Grassland Conservation Reserve Program (Grassland CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program (ACEP), to provide financial and technical assistance for landowners who want to participate, USDA said.

USDA is committing an initial $15 million in investment through EQIP and ACEP for Wyoming, in addition to the rental payments that will go to producers who enroll in Grasslands CRP.

“Using lessons learned from this pilot, USDA seeks to scale up this model across the West as part of President Biden’s commitment to support voluntary, locally-led conservation efforts to reach the administration’s national conservation goals,” USDA added.

“Conserving America’s most iconic wildlife and wildlife migration corridors depends on the conservation of private working lands and tribal lands through voluntary, collaborative incentives that reward farmers, ranchers and forest owners for stewardship of their lands,” Bonnie said in a news release.

“Today’s announcement results from consultation with the state of Wyoming and local stakeholders to create new and enhanced opportunities through USDA’s conservation programs to expand our work with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners to conserve wildlife and migration corridors and to keep working lands working.”

“Wyoming leads the nation in our approaches to conserving big game and their movements. We’ve done that with strong landowner partnerships and an acknowledgement that habitat conservation can be done on multi-use landscapes,” said Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“Private landowners provide key habitat for wildlife seen in Yellowstone National Park. Offering voluntary funding opportunities to landowners to maintain this valuable space for wildlife is a recognition of their role in conservation.”

USDA said it participated in extensive engagement and listening sessions with stakeholders throughout Wyoming and developed this pilot in response to their feedback. Those sessions helped guide the project’s concepts and principles: recognition of the large scale of this issue in key landscapes, coordination with state agencies, consistency with state policy and direction and support of existing partnerships wherever possible.

USDA will invest in three conservation areas using these voluntary and incentive-based programs. All are designed to help willing landowners and their partners conserve private lands for the benefit of migratory big game populations:

▪ Agricultural Land Protection — Preventing the conversion of private working lands that provide habitat and other values for migratory big game populations to alternative land uses not compatible with big game migrations. Specifically, this would include preventing actions like residential subdivision, mining and development of commercial wind and solar facilities on private lands. Additional resources will be provided to Wyoming for Agricultural Land Easements through ACEP (ACEP-ALE) for this effort, as well as prioritization of big game conservation through RCPP.

▪ Restoration, Enhancement and Management — Restoring and managing working lands to provide a variety of healthy habitats migrating animals need to meet their life history requirements. Habitat quality can be improved in many ways including but not limited to the control of invasive species, restoration of degraded aspens, removal of encroached woodlands and restoration of wet meadows.

▪ Conservation Leases — Managing working lands in a way that ensures the resiliency of the desired habitat conditions is extremely important to migrating big game as they rely upon healthy lands to meet their diverse seasonal habitat needs. Providing annual financial incentives to landowners through a conservation lease can help encourage the long-term management that results in resiliency.

“This effort builds on USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Working Lands for Wildlife approach, which has enabled more than 8,400 producers across the United States to conserve 12 million acres of prime wildlife habitat since 2010,” USDA said.

“This approach has had ample success in the West, where it has focused on removing invasive weeds and invading conifers, reducing wildfire risk, and protecting wetlands as well as agricultural lands from exurban development. Resulting conservation actions played a key role in the no-list decisions for the greater sage-grouse, bi-state sage-grouse, and New England cottontail as well as the delisting of the Louisiana black bear.”

–The Hagstrom Report

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